Tea in Ireland:
Mainstay — to Moral Decay — to Mainstay
As one of the world’s top per-capita consumers of tea, Ireland takes its brew seriously—yet the history of tea in Ireland reveals a intriguing past. Today we know that drinking tea has numerous health benefits, but the 1894 New York Times relates that the House of Commons questioned the Chief Secretary for Ireland about a report linking tea consumption to depression, insomnia, and, ultimately, insanity!
Tea Frowned Upon
At its introduction in the country, tea was a luxury item. However, when the price fell in 1784, those in the lower economic classes could afford an inexpensive version; they then masked its inferior quality by making a very strong brew and generously adding milk. By the 1830s, tea had become a mainstay.
Following the Great Famine (1840s) and the subsequent prolonged poverty and agricultural depression, many people could not afford nutritious food—but tea continued to be cheap and plentiful.
Detractors decried the beverage, however, especially as doctors of the time believed tea to be a nervous stimulant. And so, tea was blamed for society’s ills:
Drinking tea . . .
- “is a form of laziness which produces—there can be no doubt about it—mischievous results” (Irish Times, 1881)
- is addictive and leads to moral decay (Irish Times, 1881)
- leads to social backwardness
- causes women to neglect their duties to their children and household
- is a waste of money
Tea Finally Embraced
Eventually, tea became fully accepted as a (positive!) dietary staple, and the London Tea Auction supplied Ireland—as well as much of the world—with tea produced in Assam, in northern India.
After World War II disrupted the tea trade, Ireland established Tea Importers Ltd to import tea directly to Ireland from the tea producers themselves. At first, tea was mostly shipped from India, where it was produced for only 5 to 6 months of the year, requiring storage for the remainder of the year.
Photography by Alissa Rheinheimer. Sources include: (1) “Digesting the Medical Past,” by I. Miller, Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, Univ. of Ulster, (2) “Irish Tea Industry–A Brief History,” Fitzpatrick and Co., (3) The Irish Times, 2/24/15, (4) “Tea-drinking in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland,” Pouring Tea, March 21, 2013, (5) “Tea Drinking in Ireland,” New York Times, June 29, 1894.